These Are the Good Old Days

I recently happened upon this magnificent post by Michele Weldon, my one-time college journalism professor, two-time work colleague and all-time fellow cancer survivor.

The piece is remarkable in its poignancy and enviable in its prose. I read through it a few times–and even though Michele and I are not that close in age–her words really resonated, shocking me into a renewed sense of gratitude for my current moment in life that has lingered long after I closed the tab on her essay.

One image Michele offered hit me particularly hard in the taking-my-life-for-granted department:

I am the old lady in the lap lane … I swim in the same pool where I took my three children when they were young and never seemed to get tired; now I wonder how many laps I have left in me.

While I don’t swim, I immediately applied this haunting passage to my own life and the things I do with my kids. I could suddenly see myself walking the two blocks to the beautiful park by our house on a sunny summer Saturday, pulling my two beautiful kids behind me in the second-hand Little Tikes wagon our neighbor gifted to us. I could see myself idly checking my phone as I pushed my kids in the swings, preoccupied with thoughts about a work project and impatiently wondering when it would be nap time so I could take them back home and finally get some time to myself.

I didn’t hear the question my three-year-old daughter was trying to ask me until she raised her voice in frustration to ask it a third time. I didn’t notice that my one-year-old son was smiling up at me as he laughed with each thrilling sway of the swing. This outing had become a time-killing necessity, not a joyful bonding moment. I was embodying the kind of father I swore I’d never become–unengaged, unaware and ungrateful.

I didn’t notice the elderly man sitting on the park bench, wistfully taking in the Rockwellian scene of a father spending quality time with his two children. In this revery, I’m that guy, too. I’m the old man in the lap lane–walking ever more slowly the two blocks to the park where I spent so much time with my kids. There were times when I didn’t appreciate it enough in the moment, but there were even more times when I did. All of those times are enough to bring a tear to the old man’s eye, and to this younger man’s eye as I think about that scenario.

I am grateful for Michele’s essay as a pause button in the midst of my seemingly chaotic life to force me to realize anew that these are the good old days. This chaos is what I was created for and what I have craved.

When Theresa and I were dating, one of us said that we would look back on that time of our relationship as “a real Golden Age.” We meant this in all seriousness at the time, but we have since frequently laughed at the remark, as time has proven its arrogance and inaccuracy. Despite the temptation to view those unencumbered, carefree, dopamine-fueled days as the summit of our association, the reality is that there have been countless better times since we got married. And these are the times that I want to fully invest myself in so that when I really do become that old man on the park bench, the single tear on my cheek is full of joy and not regret.

I don’t fear the reaper of the lap lane–I know I’ll be there eventually. My greatest fear is the sin of preoccupied apathy–robbing myself of truly experiencing special moments, memories and interactions because I’m simply not present enough or too wrapped up in my work, my stress and myself to even notice the specialness anymore.

There is no denying the seasonality of life. It’s what we unknowingly signed up for. You don’t get the thrill of the rollercoaster’s drop without first taking the arduous journey up the long hill of the track. But it’s as important as it is difficult to try to admire the view as you rise, to enjoy the excitement of the descent and to bask in the afterglow when the rollercoaster is back in the station. There’s value in all of those stages, and we miss the point of the ride when we fail to recognize that.

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This Is Where I Used To Live

I wrote my first blog post in a while over at Dad Has A Blog, and that got me doing the kind of reflective life pondering that usually leads me to post over here on my (also somewhat abandoned) “regular” blog. I knew it was meant to be when something happened today that flipped my nostalgia switch into overdrive.

There I was minding my own business at work when I got an email from Redfin. Now even though my real estate fortunes are fairly locked up in a 15-year mortgage on a house that I’m in the process of remodeling, Redfin still sends me friendly missives every once in a while. These are usually updates on how the value of my three-bedroom home is decreasing and the value of the two-bedroom condo I sold on Redfin five years ago is skyrocketing and now somehow worth more than I paid for my house. I’m not sure if this is supposed to fill me with regret or make me want to sell my house, but it’s mostly just making me hate Redfin.

Today’s message did not provide another helpful update though. It just reiterated the sale price of my condo and listed a bunch of other recent sales and listings in the area. This got me wondering how much condos in that complex were actually going for these days, so I scrolled down to look at the recent listings. I saw one that was listed for quite a bit more than I listed mine.

Unit 307. Wait a minute. 307? That’s my unit!

Instantly, someone cued the Barenaked Ladies in my head:

It was back on the market! That meant there were probably fresh photos of the current interior! I could virtually break into the old apartment!

Pathetic or not, this was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for me. I’d been wondering since I sold the place what the new owner would do with all the aesthetic decisions I had made. Being the first time that I ever lived away from home, I poured some money, sweat and personality into the place. My place.

Before moving in, I spent many weeknights there cleaning things and painting things and filling it with necessary new things to make it my home. I spent a lot of quality time at Home Depot. I cleaned every inch of every appliance, cabinet and countertop. I chose colors and repainted every wall. I had new carpeting installed. I had a tile entryway installed. I tried to fix a toilet. Then I hired someone to replace a toilet.

When the eventual new owner first toured it, I remember him looking at my blue-walled Cubs bathroom and muttering something about that being the first to go. Would my light purple Northwestern bathroom suffer the same fate? I remember his real estate agent coming back a second time to measure the dining room to see if his moose antler chandelier would fit in the space. I remember asking her if she was serious. She was. I believe the word she used to describe it was “impressive.”

I never expected to sell it as quickly as I did. According to my vague life plan, this was going to be my place for a while. And those brief years when it was my place were vital for my formation into the independent, self-sufficient and less selfish person that I have become.

The place is also inextricably linked in my mind to the courtship of my wife. Living on my own and having a condo meant my first sustained foray into the dating world. I remember preparing dinner in my kitchen for various would-be sweethearts–my specialty was baked salmon and green beans–only to have things end with the usual disappointment.

Then I met Theresa, and the memories get a lot better. I vividly recall the excitement of my phone buzzing on my nightstand with a new text from her. Or the first time she came over for dinner–yes, it was salmon–and we died of laughter afterward while watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special on the loveseat in my living room. Or that time that I didn’t think I would be seeing her one night and she texted me to look out on my balcony, where she was smiling below in the parking lot. Or the time we sat on the couch and she showed me her favorite engagement ring styles.

We threw some great parties here, watched a lot of movies here, practiced swing dancing here, played a lot of board games here, had a lot of fights here (especially after board games), and just spent a lot of time here. This is where we fell in love. We affectionately refer to this era as the Dopamine Days, and they are forever linked to this condo.

So I was very excited to see what had become of a place that has such a special place in my heart and memory.

See for yourself:

If you like his better, don’t tell me. Sing it, Ladies:

Why did you change the floor?
Why did you paint the wall?
Why did you swap appliances?
I see no moose here at all.
This is where we used to live.

When Rounding Thirty Becomes Pushing Forty

Seven years ago yesterday, I started this blog to chronicle the approach of my fourth decade of life. My internal premise was that momentous things might happen over the course of those 10 years, and I would want a way to commemorate them for real-time analysis and future perusal.

Turns out, I bet on the right decade. Each year of my 30s seems to have featured something unexpected or new: the purchase of a condo, my first serious relationship, an engagement, the purchase of a house, a job change, a wedding, a cancer fight, and the birth of my daughter.

This year, as I marvel at how I am now entering the second half of that momentous decade and contemplate the fact that this blog’s name is no longer technically accurate, I realize that my 36th year was no exception to the “big changes” theme of my 30s.

And I feel like 36 is the year that I finally grew up.

As recently as last year, I was writing about how I didn’t feel like my advancing age was befitting of my mental, physical and emotional state. If anything could swiftly flip that switch to “adult mode,” it would be the events of the past year: the birth of my second child, an unexpected layoff, an intense job search and the start of a new job.

Over the past few months, I have found myself feeling more responsible and indispensable both personally and professionally. There are more people counting on me. There is more riding on my decisions. There is less room for selfishness. There is a greater need for collaboration. This goes for work projects, child-rearing and marriage maintaining.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the past and the present–heck, that’s what this blog is all about–but I find myself thinking a lot more about the future now. The unrelenting onslaught of big life changes over the last seven years has finally taught me one overarching lesson: good or bad, no stage of life lasts forever and you’re not the one in control.

That sounds trite–and probably obvious–but when I’m engaged in the daily grind, it’s easy for me to forget. My two-year-old daughter will always speak in delightfully broken English. My six-month-old son will always need to scream himself to sleep. My family and friends will always be around. My coworkers will always be my coworkers and my job will always be my job, until I decide it’s time for me to move on.

These are the lies that I’ve convinced myself of. These are the lies that punch me in the gut when unplanned change rears its ugly head, or time marches on and life evolves. Change is the truth that demands perspective, animates life and inspires gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, I love the fact that my birthday lands right before Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas season–a time to annually renew your spirit by taking holistic stock of where you’ve been, where you’re going and who you’re going with.

If the last year has shown me anything, it’s that the word “change” can be a synonym for “blessing.” I’m convinced that everything that happened to me in the first half of my 30s–good or bad, fun or sad–happened for a reason that was later made obvious to me or eventually will be.

There’s no doubt that the next half of this decade will be just as unscripted as the first. But if I’m doing this right, I’ll view the present with a renewed passion and the future with a grateful hope.

I hope you will, too.

9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.


The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.

 


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